Ten Tests for a Free Press
"We must never tire of protesting," wrote Romain Rolland recently in
his protest against one of the many myths which circulate throughout the
world and work against its welfare.
The newspapers is a dry sensitive organ. Its success or
failure depends on the public; only rarely is there such a situation
as in Chicago where many persons who have to buy either the Tribune or
the Herald-Examiner have been heard to express their lack of
confidence in both. In most cities people believe in the printed
word, even when the type is the largest and the word far removed
from the truth.
The failure of a free press in most countries is usually
blamed on the readers. Every nation gets the government - and the
press - it deserves. This is too facile a remark. The people
deserve better in most governments and press.
Readers, in millions of cases, have no way of finding out
whether their newspapers are fair or not, honest or distorted,
truthful or colored. Intelligent readers frequently ask for means
of testing the press.
The easiest way is to buy copies of newspapers for a week or
so, study them carefully, and compare news and headlines. If the
reader does this with a news item about a strike in which he is a
participant, or a mass meeting where he was a speaker or a listener,
or some event where bias and perversion for special motives may
enter, he will be able within one hour to find out which is the
honest, which the dishonest newspaper. (Let him not be guided by his
own bias if possible.)
Beware of the newspaper which calls itself independent. Of the (say)
ninety percent of the press which howled down the President in 1937
and 1938 a goodly portion called itself independent, or that
hypocritical paradox, "independent Republican" or "independent
Democratic." There are less than a dozen independent newspapers in
the whole country, and even that small number is dependent on
advertisers and other things, and all these other things which
revolve around money and profit make real independence impossible.
No newspaper which is supporting one class of society is
independent. And while William Allen White, who heads our editors,
insists that our publishers are unconsciously class conscious, he
admits they are class conscious. Class-conscious newspapers cannot
be free newspapers.
If we accept that this feeling is still "unconscious," then we
can proceed with tests for the publishers which every reader can
1.) Give equal space to the political parties.
2.) Give some space to minority parties, at least space relative to their
strength. (These two tests will put the majority of our press, which styles
itself independent, on the spot.)
3.) Publish the Federal Trade Commission Reports. (These reports are not
enough, but they do expose many of our greatest manufacturers of food,
drink, clothing, tobacco, milk, etc., as fraudulent.)
4.) Tell the truth about cigarettes and automobiles, the two largest
5.) Give the consumer a square deal. (Publish the same reports on
consumers' goods which only the liberal and left weeklies publish
6.) Reject organized pressure. (Inform the American Legion, the
Catholic Church organizations, the business and advertising
organizations, an all the other sacred cows, bulls and elephants of
journalism, they will no longer influence the news. If all
publishers in any one town agree on this, no losses can follow.)
7.) Publish the labor news. Give labor a square deal. (Everyone
admits that the press has fallen down worse in the labor field than
8.) Throw Mr. Hearst out. (The Associated Press accused Hearst of theft of
the news. It won its case. But it did not throw him out. Neither did the
A.N.P.A. No press organization can make any ethical claims so long as it
has a Hearst around.)
9.) Stop defending child labor because of the few dollars you save on
10.) Print both sides of a controversy. (The New York Daily News published
both a "Presidential battle page" in the Roosevelt-Landon campaign and an
"economic battle page" on labor. It offered them free, but only a few
papers took them. No paper can claim to be free if it refuses to publish
These are ten simple tests which come to me on the spur of the
moment. Other newspapermen will think of better ones, no doubt.*
But all of them look fair to me. If a paper announces itself as a
Republican sheet and wants to publish nothing but Republican party
news, that is fair and honest, but few newspapers so announce
themselves. Not only the self-styled independent paper but any
paper which claims it is a newspaper, must publish the news, and that
is all that one can ask.
But if it claims it is a free paper it must give equal space to
I know that no newspaper in America will publish anything like
Consumers Union's Reports on foods, automobiles, cigarettes, but it
is reprehensible of them to refuse
* The following tests for a free press have been
suggested by newspapermen, editors, and school of journalism
professors who have read this manuscript:
1. Defend public welfare instead of public utilities.
2. Publish the facts about radicals, "Reds," etc. without Red baiting.
3. Discover the co-operative movement in America.
4. Run the advertisements of Consumers Union.
5. Stop publishing letters which agree with editorial policy only.
advertisements of the Union itself. This co-operative, non-profit seeking
organization tests all consumers' goods; its scientific reports are
frequently at variance with the advertisements, and no one can challenge
their truthfulness. The newspapers show their prostitution to advertisers
every time they refuse a Consumers Union advertisement. The
advertisements merely solicit membership in the organization. They
do not distinguish between good and bad products. But the monthly
report of the Union does list good and bad products thereby
serving its members well, but offending the manufacturers of bad
products who are also large advertisers.
If I were to be asked for one specific proof that the old-fashioned
venality still persists in the press, and that the advertiser still
dominates the newspaper business, I would offer the experiences of the
foregoing organization in dealing with the business managers of newspapers
The element of hypocrisy also enters the situation: in
numerous cases the Union has requested the publications to place their
refusal to carry its advertisements in writing. But the publications have
refused to the organization documentary proof of their dirty work.
The excuses given by some of the great newspapers are strange
and varied. One says it does not accept the "type" of
advertisement, and another declares the ad is "controversial." The
Union advertisement is not an advertisement offering anything for
sale; it is simply a notice that a non-profit making public service
society seeks members, and these members are promised a
scientifically truthful service about consumers' goods.
Among the advertising managers who said by telephone they would
not take the Union's announcements and who refused to send written
confirmation, the Union informs me are the New York News and the
Philadelphia Record. On the other hand the Union has a frank
(although oral) admission from a salesman from the magazine Esquire
that that magazine "had received complaints from some of the liquor
firms because Esquire had run a C. U. ad describing our liquor
report. They threatened to withdraw their advertising if Esquire
ran any more C.U. ads. "I recall that at the time I was associate
editor of Ken, published by the Esquire company, I proposed to the
advertising department it solicit C. U. for a page advertisement,
which it did. The Union offered to pay the usual price of $900 for
a page. But the ad did not appear because the salesman who
rejoiced one day that he had landed the order, found out the next
day that it would offend all the advertisers.
The Union ran full page advertisements in the New York Times in 1936 and
the result was a tremendous growth in membership. But in February, 1937,
the Times management held up an advertisement and questioned the competency
of the Union's laboratories. At a conference the non-profit making
organization submitted its evidence, whereupon the Times
representatives, although seemingly satisfied, suggested that an
investigation be made by the Better Business Bureau. This bureau is
an organization which is run by big business and advertisers and
some of its officials make drugs, foods and commodities which have
been criticized by Consumers Union. The proposition was ridiculous.
It would be equivalent to have the ethical doctors of America
investigated by the patent medicine makers. Finally the Times
suggested it might run the advertising if prominent men would endorse
the work. Senators, Representatives, college professors, writers,
and others did so. But the Times still continues to play the game
of straddling and evading.
Among the sixty publications which through sheer fear of losing
money from other advertisers have refused the Union Advertising (in
addition to those mentioned) are the New York Herald Tribune, the
New York Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and dozens of
The Post has been "considering an ad for two years; on May 3,
1937, it wrote it was "not in a position to determine the accuracy
of the Consumers' Union reports" and would communicate when it had
done so, and there the matter rests.
The Christian Science Monitor, which has a great record for
throwing fake advertising for the very drugs, foods and commodities,
which the Union also exposes, out of its columns, could not, however
bring its integrity to the point of accepting the advertising for an
organization which has a social and progressive policy and a social
conscience. "It is not possible for us to give the reason for this
decision," it wrote.
A letter mailed in a Scripps-Howard envelope informed the Union
that John Sorrels, executive editor, had sent instructions to all
Scripps-Howard editors to kill C.U. press material. The Union
complained to Roy Howard. It received a reply from Mr. Sorrells
saying: We have not instructed Scripps-Howard 'not to use
C. U. material'...but we have from time to time cautioned our
editors with regards to the use of handouts material from any of the
various consumer bureaus..." In other words, the Scripps-Howard
press uses thousands of columns of handouts from the automobile
and other industries which advertise, but cautions its editors not
to use press material which would benefit the consumers - perhaps
at the expense of the advertisers.
Time after time Consumers Union has protested this boycott by
the press in its own monthly reports. Frequently many among its
65,000 members have written to publishers and received no
satisfaction. The New York Times, however, has adapted a form letter
to deal with such protests. It reads:
The New York Times accepted the advertising of the firm you
mention for many months. We suspended it when some of our
executives raised the point that an important part of the company's
service comprised attacks on the products or services of other
companies or industries. This the Times does not permit: So far no
satisfactory basis has been found for renewing the advertising.
- C. McD. Puckette.
This is the nearest to a confession that it is advertising agency
pressure which is directing the policy of the newspapers. A better
confession of this sinister business can be found in Editor &
Publisher (August 6, 1938) where Edward Davenport, a merchandising
expert, writes a tremendous attack on all consumers' organizations.
Since he cannot possibly say anything just or rational against them,
he calls them names and "enemies of the American industrial system
and social order."
In a way this is true. Consumers' organizations favor their
members, the public, and expose such things that as excessive utility
rates, fake advertising, shoddy goods, false bargains, poisonous
patent medicines, and many useless an fraudulent companies and
products which help put big publishers in the upper income tax
brackets, and therefore maintain their social order.
I challenge any newspaper in America to publish the findings of
Johns Hopkins University on the effects of cigarette smoking in
shortening life and generally weakening the system.
I challenge all publishers to run a department on consumers'
goods written from the viewpoint of benefit for the readers instead
of the advertiser.
I challenge any newspaper to omit all advertisements for drugs
which the medical profession believes harmful.
As one way toward a better, if not a free press, I suggest
that every newspaper reader demand that his publisher make the ten
testes listed above.
The greatest cause for optimism in America is the result of the
Hearst press, from New York to California. Stop buying Red-baiting
papers. Stop patronizing colored, biased, perverted papers. And
write to the editors. Never grow weary of protesting. In this
sensitive business of dealing with the public which depends on faith
and good, will, protest is a most effective weapon. Therefore
And if that fails, boycott the corrupt newspaper. Support the honest
newspaper just as strongly.
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